Did you know that if you turn on your cell phone during takeoff or landing on a commercial airline flight, the engines will spontaneously combust and the plane will drop from the sky like a brick? No? Well, that’s because I just made that up.
However, a similar falsehood has been dictating FAA gadget policy for years, and it’s equally frustrating. The myth is that using your cell phone or other electronic gadgets will interfere with the plane's instruments.
So, the guy who picked up a paperback John Grisham novel at the overpriced airport gift shop is free to read from wheels up to wheels down. But, if you have that same novel downloaded to your Kindle, iPad, or other device, you're prohibited from reading it until the plane reaches 10,000 feet—and you have to shut it down when the plane descends past 10,000 feet again during landing.
The FAA policy, however, is now being reviewed, and may be revised to be a tad more lenient. Allowing the use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing would allow people to be much more productive—especially on shorter flights where it seems like the entire trip is the ascent and descent, with very little time at cruising altitude.
There are a couple guys who are experts when it comes to myths whose opinions I trust—the MythBusters, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage. The MythBusters crew put this assertion to the test and proved that it is simply not true, more than six years ago.
What the MythBusters did find is that trying to use a cell phone while flying 600 miles per hour at 30,000 feet wreaks havoc on the cell tower system on the ground. At that speed and altitude the call attempts to bounce off of many cell towers simultaneously, which is why the FCC banned cellular connections in flight—not the FAA—and why using the cell phone to make voice calls is still not open for debate.
But, even if we accept that the various signals emitted from our electronic devices might cause a problem, they invented this thing called Airplane Mode a long time ago. Flight attendants like to say that all of your devices must be completely powered off, and that airplane mode is unacceptable. But, the whole point of Airplane Mode is to literally shut down all wireless communications that might in any way interfere with the aircraft (if that were true to begin with) to allow them to be used safely in flight.
So, if the guy sitting next to me is reading that overpriced Grisham paperback, and I’m reading the same book on my iPad with Airplane Mode enabled, is there any difference to the airplane or flight crew? No. And, that is why the FAA is finally taking another look at the antiquated rules.
The real problem that the FAA, airlines, and flight crews will have to struggle with, though, is that many people are technically inept. They may not know how to enable Airplane Mode. They might think they’ve disabled wireless communications when they haven’t. The burden can’t be on the flight attendants to go from seat to seat and show people how their devices work and how to use them properly.
But, thanks to the MythBusters we know that it’s really not a problem unless you try to call your mom to let her know you’ll be arriving soon. So, let’s expedite this FAA review process and get some more reasonable gadget rules in place.